The Individual and the Community in Light in August*
(*Reprinted from Studies in American Literature, ed. Waldo McNeir and Leo B. Levy, Humanities Series, No. 8 (Baton Rouge; Louisiana State University Press, 1960), pp. 132-53, 170-72, by permission of Louisiana State University Press.)
Light in August is probably Faulkner's most complex and difficult novel. Here he combined numerous themes on a large canvas where many aspects of life are vividly portrayed. The publication of this novel marked the end of Faulkner's greatest creative period — in four years he had published five substantial novels and numerous short stories. Light in August is the culmination of this creative period and is the novel in which Faulkner combines many of his previous themes with newer insights into human nature. In Sartoris, The Sound and the Fury, and As I Lay Dying, Faulkner had examined the relationship of the individual to his family. In his next major novel, Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner returned to the family as the point of departure for his story. In Light in August, the family as a unit is replaced by the community, which although not examined as the family is in other novels, serves as the point of departure.
The novel may be interpreted on many levels. It suggests such themes as man's isolation in the modern world, man's responsibility to the community, the sacrifice of Christ, the search-for-a-father, man's inhumanity to man, and the theme of denial and flight as opposed to passive acceptance and resignation.
Each of these can be adequately supported, but none seems to present the whole intent of the novel. Perhaps this is because the complexity of the novel yields to no single interpretation but seems to require a multiple approach.
The complex theme of man's need to live within himself while he recognizes his responsibility both to himself and to his fellow man will support such a multiple approach to Light in August. The reaction of the various characters to the community offers another basic approach to the novel. Phyllis Hirshleifer emphasizes the isolation of man in the novel, while Cleanth Brooks sees in it man's relationship in the community. These two views do not exclude each other. The isolation of each character only reinforces his struggle for status both with the community and with himself.
Light in August follows in the logical pattern set by Faulkner's two earlier novels, The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. The preceding novels dealt with man trying to find a meaningful relationship with the immediate family, and this one deals with man in relationship to the community and as an isolated being unable to communicate with his fellow man.
Cleanth Brooks writes that the community serves as "the field for man's actions and the norm by which his action is judged and regulated." But the difficulty here is that we do not have a sufficient picture of the norm. It would be accurate to regard the community as a force which man tries to assail or avoid. And as Miss Hirshleifer writes: "The society through which Lena moves, the people who give her food, lodging, money and transportation because of her patient understanding modesty are, after all, the same people who crucify the Christmases whose evil arouses their own." It is, therefore, the responses of the community to the individual that become significant. While Lena evokes responses for good, Joe Christmas seems to arouse their evil instincts, and Hightower arouses their suspicion.
But these responses are not seen, as Brooks suggests, from the view of the community, but through the effects they produce on the individual character. Thus the community reacts in varying ways, but none of these reactions could accurately be considered as the norm of behavior. And even though Lena is able to evoke responses for good from various people, she remains outside the community. Each character in the novel is seen as a lonely individual pitted against some force either within or outside himself. Lena, Byron Bunch, Hightower, Christmas, Joanna Burden, Joe Brown, Uncle Doc Hines, and even people like Percy Grimm and McEachern stand outside the community. This is further emphasized by the fact that both Lena and Christmas are orphans who have no family whom they can return to. The community is also used as the objective commentator on the action. We get the long-range view usually from the point-of-view of the community, but nowhere during any of the long views does the community make any definite moral evaluations.
The isolation theme is carried over into the structure of the novel. The novel may be broken down into many groups of seemingly isolated vignettes. Each scene, however, is part of one large thematic mosaic, and none could be successfully removed without destroying the whole. Likewise, each isolated character in each isolated scene is viewed in the final analysis as a part of the structure of a unified whole. Thus the isolation of each character is supported by the structural device of presenting the action of the novel in groups of vignettes.
Lena wills her own isolation. Although she could have left her brother's home unmolested and by the front door, she chose to leave by the window which had played such a prominent part in her pregnancy. She never complains of her lot and never asks for help from anyone. However, she instinctively knows that people will help her; so she comes to accept their help at face value. Her simple faith in life is echoed by her belief that she ought to be with the father of her child when it is born: "I reckon the Lord will see to that." Her responses to life are the simple and basic reactions founded on a simple philosophy of charity and hope. She is always anxious to help those people who give her assistance, and she would always "be obliged" if others would share her meager meals with her. She constantly feels the need to commune and share her experience with others.
Even though she relies upon the kindness of strangers, her strength lies in the fact that she has assumed complete responsibility for her acts. She blames no person for her predicament, and she acknowledges no outside hostile force working against her. Lena, then, brings with her the potential salvation and redemption of Byron Bunch and Hightower by evoking from them responses for good and forcing them to become involved in responsibility.
Byron Bunch, during his seven years in Jefferson before Lena's arrival, had only one acquaintance, the Reverend Gail Hightower, who was an outcast completely isolated from the community. The community had never noticed Byron, except in a casual way to comment upon his idiosyncrasies, until he became involved with Lena. Merely by her passivity and her simple questions, Lena forces Byron to become involved. After revealing to her the identity of Joe Brown, Byron then feels responsible to her. This feeling of responsibility draws Bryon out of his lethargic existence and forces him into the stream of life. He in turn tries to involve Hightower, who struggles against Byron's interference. Hightower has lived too long in his isolated world of self-abnegation and denial to see that Byron must feel responsible for Lena. He cannot understand Byron's actions and interprets them as possessing some ulterior motive.
But Byron's actions are the outcome of more than thirty years of routine monotony and celibacy. Byron, like Lena, had willed his own isolation in Jefferson; however, with the appearance of Lena, he is forced to become involved in society. His potential redemption is that he is able to live outside himself and commune with another person; and even though this involvement was forced upon him, his strength and salvation lie in the fact that he willingly accepts the responsibility for his actions. Not only does he commit the necessary acts of preparing for Lena's child and acting as her protector, but also, he exceeds the demands made upon him when he follows after the fleeing Brown and confronts him even though he knows that he will be beaten. Thus Byron, after willing his own isolation, has involvement forced upon him which he willingly accepts.
Hightower's isolation is likewise somewhat self-imposed. Initially, the isolation derived from forces over which he had no control. His grandfather's ghost haunted his Calvinistic conscience until it forced him to marry a girl whom he did not love and subject her to his own ghosts. He is haunted by two conflicting views of his grandfather — that of the romantic cavalry officer galloping down the streets with drawn saber and that of the grandfather shot while stealing chickens, and furthermore, shot probably by some woman.
The seminary he attended acted not as a sanctuary from his phantoms, as he hoped it would, but rather as a means of furthering his ends and preparing him for a call to Jefferson. At the seminary, he met his future wife, who wanted to escape from the tedium of her life there. At Jefferson, he confused God with his grandfather, galloping horses with salvation, and the cavalry with Calvary. His sermons then reflected his own confusion and, as he later realizes, did not bring to the congregation the messages of hope and forgiveness.
When his wife commits suicide as a result of Hightower failure as a husband, the congregation then turns against High-tower. He then becomes the rejected and isolated minister. Therefore, part of his isolation is forced upon him, but in part it derives from his own inner failure to bring the past and present into a workable unity.
Carl Benson writes: "Hightower shapes his own destiny by acts of will, and he is, therefore, morally accountable for his choice." It seems, however, that Hightower's earlier life was shaped for him from forces of the past over which he had no control. These are the forces which ultimately cause him to be rejected by the Presbyterian congregation. It is only after his dismissal that Hightower wills his own destiny, and therefore becomes morally liable for it. His choice to stay in Jefferson despite persecution, disgrace, and physical violence results in his complete isolation. His moral responsibility derives from the sanctity of isolation away from the community. He thinks that because he suffered the disgrace and shame, the physical torment and pain, he has won the right to peace and solitude and the privilege of remaining uninvolved in life. He refuses to accept responsibility for his past faults because his suffering has atoned for his previous errors.
But with the entrance of Lena into Jefferson, Hightower is forcefully drawn into the stream of life again and realizes that the past has not been bought and paid for. Hightower, therefore, cannot become the effective moral reflector of the novel until he is able to come to terms both with himself and his fellow man, and until he assumes a place in society again and recognizes his responsibility to himself and his fellow man.
Lena, Byron, and Hightower all will their isolation. Joe Christmas' isolation is forced upon him early in his life by outside forces and attitudes. Part of his plight in life comes from the fact that he can never accept anything but partial responsibility for his acts and at the same time attempts to disclaim all responsibility for them. Just before killing Joanna, he thinks that "Something is going to happen to me," which suggests that Christmas looks upon his violent actions as being compelled by exterior forces which relieve him of any personal responsibility. But then this only increases his predicament, because he does feel a partial responsibility for his actions. If, then, Christmas' life and attitudes are shaped by exterior forces, it is necessary, in order to understand his plight, to determine how much Christmas feels he should be held responsible for his acts.
Joe's earliest attitudes were formulated in the orphanage. It was here that he first discovered that he possessed Negro blood — a fact that in one way or another controlled or affected his every act throughout life. His remaining life was spent trying to bring these two irreconcilable opposites into a significant relationship. His unknown father bequeathed him his Negro blood, and this heritage, over which he had no control, is the strongest influence upon his life. At the orphanage he is first called "nigger." The blood cages him in, and the vigilance of Euphues Hines sets him apart from the rest of the orphans. He is unable to establish a meaningful relationship with any of the other children, and he senses his difference.
One experience at the orphanage, especially, has multiple consequences for Christmas. When he is discovered stealing the dietitian's toothpaste, he expects punishment and instead is bribed with more money than he knew existed. This experience becomes the determining factor in his attitude toward the order of existence, women, and sex throughout the rest of his life. Since he was kept in suspense for several days desiring punishment which never came, he was left confused as to the meaning of his act.
Therefore, during the rest of his life when the pattern or order of existence is broken, the result is usually disastrous. When he transgresses McEachern's rules he expects and receives punishment, which accords with his idea of the order of things. This is again why he detests the interference of Mrs. McEachern. She, like the dietitian, represents a threat to the settled order of human existence. Or else, with each prostitute during his years on the road, he would tell her that he was a Negro, which always brought one reaction. When this pattern is broken by the prostitute who did not care whether he was Negro or not, his reactions are violent and he beats her unmercifully.
Thus his violent outburst comes from the unconscious desire to punish the dietitian who had first violated his pattern of order. The same reaction is seen in his relationship with Joanna Burden. For about two years, their relationship conformed to an ordered (though unorthodox) pattern; but when Joanna broke this pattern with her demands that Christmas take over her finances, go to a Negro school, and finally that he pray with her in order to be saved, he again reacted violently to this violation of his concept of an ordered existence.
His basic hatred for women ultimately returns to this episode. The dietitian in violating his order of existence also attempted to destroy his individuality. Thus the effeminizing efforts of Mrs. McEachern to soften his relations with his foster father are rejected because if he yielded to them, he would face the possibility of losing the firm and ordered relation with McEachern. As long as he maintains this masculine relationship with McEachern, he feels that he retains his individuality.
And, finally, the childhood episode with the dietitian is reflected in his sex life. The toothpaste becomes the basic symbol. At the same time that it is a cleansing agent, it also serves as a phallic symbol. The result of the scene is his utter sickness caused by the "pink woman smelling obscurity behind the curtain" and the "listening . . . with astonished fatalism for what was about to happen to him." Each subsequent sex relation, therefore, brings a guilt feeling to Christmas. He associated sex with filth, sickness, violation of order, and the potential loss of individuality.
Likewise, it is significant that each of his subsequent encounters with sex is accompanied by strong sensory images. When he beats the young Negro girl, it is amid the strong odors of the barn and he is also reminded of the sickness caused by the toothpaste. Later, his first encounter with Bobbie Allen is in the restaurant where he goes to order food, and finally, he meets Joanna in her kitchen when he is stealing food from her. Each of these sensory occurrences recalls to him the scene with the dietitian and again threatens the loss of individuality and the breaking of an ordered existence.
Christmas' need for order is violated in turn by each of the women with whom he comes into contact. The lesson he learned early in life was that he could depend upon men, but women were forever unpredictable. It was the woman who always broke the pattern of order. First the dietitian, then Mrs. McEachern violated his concept of order, and then Bobbie Allen turned violently against him at the time when he most needed her. The last woman to break his order of existence was Joanna Burden, who paid for it with her life.
The women, then, serve as the destroyers of order. This is brought out mechanically by Faulkner by using the biblical concept of woman as being unclean. Their menstrual period breaks the order of their life and then comes to represent their unordered and unclean life. The first time he learned of their monthly occurrences, Christmas' reactions were violent and ended in a blood baptism — the blood being taken from a young sheep that he killed. But even then he rejected this knowledge so that when Bobbie Allen tried to explain the same thing to him, again his reactions were violent, this time ending with his vomiting. When he next sees Bobbie, he takes her with force and animal brutality. Again, he seems to be reacting against his initial introduction to sex through the dietitian, again asserting his masculinity by forcing order upon the woman.
Christmas' great need for order reverts basically to the two bloods in him which are in constant conflict. As stated previously, his blood is his own battleground. He can neither accept nor reject his mixture of blood, and neither can he bring these two elements into a workable solution. Christmas' plight results from his inability to secure a suitable position in society and he searches for a society that will accept both elements of his blood. Unable to find this, he isolates himself from all human society.
Christmas' youthful love for Bobbie Allen existed on an idealistic plane because he was able to confess his Negro blood to her and be accepted by her as an individual. However, her betrayal of his love accompanied by her taunts of "nigger bastard" and "clod-hopper" implants the idea in his mind that due to his blood he must remain the isolated being.
His search for peace, then, is a search for someone who could accept Joe Christmas as an individual despite his conflicting blood. When Joanna Burden asks Christmas how he knows he has Negro blood, he tells her that if he has no Negro blood, then he has "wasted a lot of time." He has spent his whole life and energy trying to reconcile these two bloods, and if he has no Negro blood then all the efforts of his life have been to no avail."
Joanna Burden should have been the person who could have accepted Joe for what he was. By the time of their involvement, Christmas no longer seems to revolt against being called a Negro. But Joanna fails him. In being corrupted by him, she seems to enjoy the corruption even more by screaming "Negro! Negro!" as he makes love to her. At thirty-three, Joe has learned to accept this name-calling without the accompanying violent reactions; he is living in partial peace with himself, even though this peace has been found only in complete isolation.
He must reject all of mankind in order to find peace. This is seen when Byron offers Christmas food and the offer is rejected. Therefore, when Joanna offers him jobs, wants him to go to school, or tries to get him to pray, he feels that she is trying to destroy his isolation and peace. He is then forced to kill her or allow his own individuality, order, and peace to be destroyed by her. Faulkner conveys this on the story level simply by the fact that Joanna planned to kill Christmas and would have succeeded if the pistol had not failed her. Christmas is then forced to kill her in self-protection.
His life, his individuality, his peace, and his order would have been destroyed by Joanna had he yielded to her. And her death is accompanied by Christmas' refrain: "all I wanted was peace." But even at Joanna Burden's house, Joe could not attain his desired peace with himself because the warring elements of his blood compelled him to tell others that he was a Negro. At least, he confessed to Joanna and Brown. If, then, he could achieve peace only by isolating himself from people and by rejecting all responsibility toward society, he could never attain inner peace until he could accept himself and his own blood, both Negro and white.
Since Joanna was an overpowering threat to Joe's sense of peace and order, he realized that he must murder her or be destroyed by her. But the murder was not one in cold blood. The elaborate and symbolic rituals preceding the actual performance suggest that Joe is involved in a deep struggle with himself. The murder, instead of resolving his minor conflicts, severs him forever from any hope of becoming a meaningful part of society.
It is significant that he does not attempt to escape. He never leaves the vicinity of the crime. On the Tuesday after the Friday of the crime, he enters the Negro church and curses God. This is the height of his conflict. The white blood can no longer remain pacified and must express itself in violence. It remains now for Joe to come to terms with the conflicting elements within himself, and this can be done only within the circle of his own self; consequently, there is no need for Joe to leave the immediate neighborhood of his crime.
When Joe exchanges his shoes for the Negro's brogans, he seems to accept his heritage for the first time in his life. And with his acceptance of his black blood, Joe Christmas finds peace for the first time in his life. Like Lena Grove, who always accepted her responsibility, Joe realizes now that in order to find peace, he must accept full responsibility for his heritage and actions. And again like Lena, when he accepts this responsibility, he finds peace and contentment, and he becomes unified with nature.
Following this recognition and acceptance, he undergoes once more a symbolic cleansing ritual. This time using the Negro's shoes to sharpen his razor, Christmas prepares himself for his return to town in order to assume responsibility for his actions.
It is when Joe accepts his Negro heritage and recognizes that he can never escape from himself that he breathes quietly for the first time in his life and is suddenly hungry no longer. This recognition that he is no longer hungry becomes significant against the background of Joe's earlier life, which was filled with a constant struggle against hunger. That is, when he accepts himself, he symbolically becomes at peace with his tormenting hunger and also he sleeps peacefully for the first time.
With his acceptance of his responsibility and his recognition of his heritage, Joe can once more approach others. This is revealed by the scenes which immediately precede and follow Joe's self-realization. In the first scene, Joe approaches a Negro in order to ask him the day of the week, and his mere appearance creates astonishment and terror in the Negro's mind. He flees from Christmas in utter horror. But immediately after Joe has come to peace with himself, he approaches another Negro who quite naturally and nonchalantly offers him a ride to Mottstown.
Joe now has achieved an acceptance for himself, and he thinks that he will sleep, but then realizes that he needs no sleep and no food because he has found peace within himself. Thus Joe has traveled farther in the last seven days than in all the years of his life, because for the first time he has come to a complete recognition of his own life and sees that the true value or meaning of life is within his circle where he is able to achieve an understanding with himself.
Joe's plight in life, however, is not resolved. He could gain a partial truce with society by isolating himself from society; or else, he could attain a full acceptance of himself, but note that this was achieved while outside the community in complete isolation. Once he has recognized his responsibility, he must then return to the community. And once again in the community, he comes to the realization that he can never be accepted by society. The realization of his complete rejection is made more terrible by the wild rantings of his own grandfather, who demands his death." Thus, if old Doc Hines must persecute his own grandson, Joe realizes that there can be peace for him only in death. His escape finally, however, seems to be not so much because of the fanaticism of old Doc Hines, but rather because of the quiet persuasion of Mrs. Hines. Her appearance at the jail was probably Joe's final proof of the woman's need to destroy his individuality.
Doc and Mrs. Hines then contribute to Joe's death, since they set peaceful elements into contention again. Consequently, his escape is an escape from woman and also a search for peace and order through death. It is, therefore, logical that after his escape he runs first to a Negro cabin and then to Hightower's house. Through Mrs. Hines, Hightower has become the symbol of hope and peace to Christmas, and in his search for peace through death, he chooses Hightower's house as his sanctuary in which he passively accepts his crucifixion. His failure to fire the pistol is symbolic of his acceptance of his crucifixion and death and of his recognition that he can find peace only in death.
The violent death and castration of Christmas at the hands of Percy Grimm implant in our memories the atrocities that man is capable of committing against his fellow man. Grimm becomes the extreme potential of all the community when society refuses to accept its responsibility to mankind. Or as Hightower uttered when he first heard about Christmas: "Poor man. Poor mankind." That is, Joe's death is not as much a tragedy for Joe as it is a tragedy for the society which would allow such a crime as
Grimm's to be perpetrated. In Grimm's act, therefore, we see the failure of man to attain recognition, sympathy, or communion among other men and society's failure to accept man in the abstract.
But Joe's death was not in vain. Through his death and through the birth of Lena's child, Hightower has attained salvation in life by arriving at a complete realization of his own responsibility. Earlier in life, Hightower thought that through suffering he had won for himself the privilege of remaining uninvolved in life. But with the appearance of Lena, he becomes once more drawn into the active stream of life. This participation was not voluntary but forced upon him in the first instance (delivering Lena's child), but after rejecting Mrs. Hines's pleas, his second act (attempting to save Joe's life) is entirely voluntary.
Originally the attraction of Hightower and Byron to each other depended upon both being isolated from the community; but as Byron becomes involved, he draws Hightower in also. Until after Lena gives birth, Hightower struggles to retain his isolation and advises Byron to do the same. But Byron's involvement is too deep. Hightower's struggle for isolation becomes more intense as he sees himself threatened with involvement, especially when he is asked by Byron and Mrs. Hines to lie for Joe Christmas' (and in Hightower's words, mankind's) benefit. His refusal is his last futile but passionate effort to retain his isolation.
But Hightower goes to the cabin and successfully delivers Lena's child. This act of giving life to Lena's child becomes symbolic of Hightower's restoration to life. Immediately after the act, he walks back to town thinking that he won't be able to sleep, but he does sleep as peacefully as Lena's newborn child. He notices for the first time the peaceful serenity of the August morning, he becomes immersed in the miracle of life, and he realizes that "life comes to the old man yet." He views the birth as a sign of good fortune and an omen of goodwill. Therefore, this act of involvement and responsibility has restored Hightower to the human race.
This was Monday morning. Monday afternoon, Hightower is faced with his second act of involvement when Christmas flees to his house for sanctuary. This violence which Hightower must face is his payment for recognizing his responsibility in life. But having assisted in the birth of Lena's child and having recognized his involvement in life, he can no longer retract. Therefore, having acknowledged a partial responsibility, he must now perform his act of complete involvement in life by attempting to assume responsibility for Joe Christmas.
And even though Hightower fails Christmas, he has achieved salvation for himself. He does not realize this until later on in the evening when the whole meaning of his life evolves in front of him "with the slow implacability of a mediaeval torture instrument." And through this wheel image, he sees that man cannot isolate himself from the faces surrounding the wheel. Man must become a part of the community and must assume responsibility not only for his own actions but also for the actions of his fellow man.